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Citywatch: San Antonio Apartment Association advocates for a much-improved housing voucher incentive ordinance

Synopsis

The San Antonio Apartment Association took the lead in defeating a misguided source of income policy proposal in San Antonio and used the opportunity to direct city leaders to implement a more sensible housing policy—the Housing Voucher Incentive Program (HVIP).


Key takeaways

  • The San Antonio Apartment Association successfully worked with local leaders to rework a proposed “source of income” ordinance into a new policy that incentivizes property owners to work with the federal housing choice voucher program.
  • The effort involved lots of communication with city council members and staff, as well as marshaling the support of other real estate and industry groups.
  • Members involved in providing and developing affordable housing were key to the success of this effort.

Background: In 2015, the Texas Apartment Association, along with leaders and staff from local affiliates across the state, successfully lobbied for the passage of a statewide pre-emption of source of income legislation. Cities can, however, prohibit such discrimination on properties that receive support from the city.

At the end of an already challenging 2020, the City of San Antonio recommended a source of income discrimination ordinance (SOID). Source of income discrimination refers to the practice of refusing to rent to a housing applicant because of the person’s lawful form of income. A source of income discrimination ordinance makes it illegal for housing providers to not accept housing vouchers as a source of income for rent payment.

The city staff’s initial recommendation was made to the City Council Planning and Land Development Committee and was a policy drafted similar to the City of Dallas’ SOID ordinance, with a focus on having the ordinance apply only to properties that receive city funds and/or support.

For San Antonio Apartment Association staff, there was little time to welcome 2021. If the City Council Planning and Land Development Committee voted to move forward on the proposed ordinance, the city council could then vote it into law. SAAA immediately stepped up its advocacy to oppose the recommendation and educate city officials about this policy’s faults.

SAAA advocated for property owners

SAAA volunteer leaders and SAAA staff met with San Antonio city staff who authored and had proposed this ordinance, and also met with councilmembers who sat on the Planning and Land Development Committee.

These initial meetings focused on educating city staff and city council members on incentivizing affordable housing projects from the industry perspective and making development desirable for investors.

Under the recommended ordinance, property owners who receive city incentives and/or have contracts with the city would not have been able to refuse federal housing vouchers from a tenant applying for housing. It essentially required a property owner receiving benefits from the city or having a contract with the city to participate in the federal housing voucher program or else lose those benefits or contracts.

SAAA volunteer leaders who work with subsidized affordable housing projects emphasized to city officials that the ordinance would create a deterrent for housing providers applying for city funds.  Apartment owners would have to participate in the program, regardless of the circumstances of their businesses, or be denied the use of city funding or incentives to provide housing.

Initial committee approval

One of the most glaring issues with the ordinance was that city staff could not provide any tangible evidence to back up claims that vouchers were not being accepted on a large scale throughout the city at properties whose rents were affordable for voucher holders. More specifically, staff could point to no tangible evidence showing this was happening at properties that received city funding incentives or benefits.

Despite the association’s efforts, the Planning and Land Development Committee voted to send the ordinance to the full city council for consideration. SAAA firmed up its case and met with more city council members and city staff before the item reached the council for a vote.

Council action

SAAA stressed to city staff and councilmembers that the voucher program is voluntary and is not just an acceptance of rent money, it is an acceptance of an entire program that consists of rigorous physical unit inspections, a bureaucratic and delayed payment system, and the use of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) lease, which changes normal operations.

Rather than pursue source of income mandates, SAAA urged policymakers to consider improvements to the federal voucher program to reduce regulatory burdens, increase funding, and encourage voluntary participation by rental housing providers.

On April 15, the proposed ordinance was considered and there were many questions and misgivings about the proposal.

As the ordinance was written, if a prospective resident was denied a lease because of using housing vouchers to pay rent, the housing provider could face a criminal charge punishable by a $500 fine. Councilmembers recognized and acknowledged the multiple flaws, including the lack of vetting and lack of research done into this proposed ordinance, and voted to continue the item with revisions at a later meeting.

As a respected partner and supporter of the city’s housing initiatives, SAAA provided valuable feedback to help revise the ordinance.  With the help of SAAA general counsel David Fritche, SAAA provided detailed feedback to create a sound ordinance that SAAA and other housing providers and partners could support.

Revised ordinance approved

On May 13 the revised ordinance, newly named the “Housing Voucher Incentive Program” (HVIP), was brought back to the council and it received unanimous support.

The policy only applies to housing providers who are receiving grants, loans, tax abatements or monies awarded by the city to incentivize housing development.  A violation occurs when an applicable housing provider rejects a voucher holder who would otherwise qualify for a lease.

The penalties for violating the ordinance improved drastically. Instead of a criminal Class C Misdemeanor for first time offenders, the ordinance requires compliance training, followed by a fine for a second offense. A third offense will result in a letter warning the violator to comply with the rule by a certain date. If the housing provider still refuses to comply at that point, the city will take back all the city incentives the provider received and it will be ineligible for any incentives in the future.

In addition to the HVIP, the City Neighborhood and Housing Services Department committed to partnering with the San Antonio Housing Authority to make housing navigators and benefits navigators available to help voucher holders identify housing opportunities and other supports. The department will also work with real estate partners to develop an education campaign that helps voucher holders understand their rights and provides them access to other services. This campaign will also educate property owners, property managers and developers about the HVIP.

Thanks to the strong advocacy by the San Antonio Apartment Association, San Antonio was able to avoid implementing a harmful, and incorrectly named, source of income discrimination policy. Instead, with SAAA’s help, the city applied a more practical and sound policy, the HVIP, that helps all parties who take part in providing affordable housing to San Antonio residents and ultimately benefits the residents who will live in that housing.

Lessons learned

  • Going forward SAAA will work with the city and with the San Antonio Housing Authority to identify improvements that can be made to help property owners who voluntarily participate in the federal Housing Choice Voucher program. SAAA will also work with the city on education, and advocate for increased funding to the Housing Choice Voucher program.
  • Volunteers who work closely with affordable housing projects were most impactful in meetings with city officials.
  • Good relationships with other housing industry organizations became part of the education and defensive strategy for this issue. SAAA strategically contacted and made other housing partners and organizations aware of the proposed ordinance. Those groups agreed with SAAA’s concerns and performed their own outreach and education to city officials.

Hector Morales, Jr., MPAff is the San Antonio Apartment Association Director of Government Relations. Alison Cohen is SAAA’s Government Relations Manager.

Do you have a local success story to share? Tell us about it! Email Michelle Helmers for more information.

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